Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Levi-Strauss leaves

Over 100 years before Claude Levi-Strauss was born, Benjamin Franklin wrote his observations of the natives he found in America:
"Savages we call them, because their Manners differ from ours, which we think the Perfection of Civility. They think the same of theirs.
Perhaps if we could examine the Manners of different Nations with Impartiality, we should find no People so rude as to be without Rules of Politeness, nor any so polite as not to have some Remains of Rudeness"

Franklin's anthropological insight and lack of Eurocentric bias were well ahead of his time and reflect an attitude of openness to learning from other cultures. The self-reflective (reflexive) cultural perspective was developed more fully in the 20th Century by Claude Levi-Strauss in his anthropological research.

Claude Levi-Strauss died recently at age 100, but the ripples of his intellectual impact continue to spread across many academic disciplines. Departing from the artificially detached perspectives and mythological objectivity of traditional academic scholarship, his writing was a combination of reflexive travel journal, poetic storytelling and anthropological field notes. Though his personally engaged hybrid approach is generally discouraged in academia, it was precisely this voice that allowed his work to have such a broad impact. This .pdf sample from chapters 1, 4 and 16 of his first famous text Tristes Tropiques ("the sad tropics") gives us a sense of his voice as he documents his travels in South America.

It was Levi-Strauss who urged us to revise our assumptions about the complexity of "primitive" cultures and to rise above our own culturally bound perspectives when looking at others.
His study of the structure of myth is also an important contribution to academic scholarship building upon the structural analysis of Saussure and others.

The obituary for Claude Levi-Strauss in the Guardian notes his awareness of the dynamic nature of culture, and his desire to comprehend the the "onward process of transformation" that arises from solving practical problems rather than resisting the flow of culture.

"The task of the anthropologist, for Lévi-Strauss, is not to account for why a culture takes a particular form, but to understand and illustrate the principles of organisation that underlie the onward process of transformation that occurs as carriers of the culture solve problems that are either practical or purely intellectual."

We can support this onward process of transformation, the cultural evolution of our species, with our own engaged but critical reflexivity as we participate, observe and reflect upon the fascinating variety of human cultures around us. As digital technologies make us more aware of these cultures, we are faced with our own challenge to transform as it becomes increasingly necessary to develop a new kind of literacy competent to engage effectively with the modern world. As far back as 1997, Harvard's New London Group wrote "A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures" advocating accelerated development of new communication skills "to broaden this understanding of literacy ...to include negotiating a multiplicity of discourses."

These discourses might include those Levi-Strauss encountered in other cultures or they might include negotiating the various realms of Web 2.0: social networking sites like Facebook or simulated realms like Second Life.

What might Claude Levi-Strauss made of these in terms of that "onward process of transformation?"